Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Maxim Vengerov (violin), Martha Argerich (piano)

Barbican Hall, 12th January 2019

  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043,
  • Robert Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E flat major

I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t go to the Oxford Philharmonic’s 20th birthday bash at the Barbican Hall to listen to the orchestra though there were clearly a fair few university types, students, alumni and academic staff, in the packed house, who plainly did. No it was the chance to see three world class soloists strut their stuff, though try as I might I couldn’t find a chum to accompany me.

Well they didn’t disappoint. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxin Vengerov were, unsurprisingly, electric, and Martha Argerich showed why she is, unarguably, the world’s greatest living pianist. And that in a piece of music, the Schumann Piano Concerto, that remains a mystery to me. It is a very disorientating feeling, being enraptured by an artist’s playing yet not really caring about, or even liking, what she was playing. Quite the opposite with the Bach Double Concerto which is a belter. As is the Beethoven, obviously, though sadly, not here. Too rich and too slow for my taste.

The Bach was, surprisingly, Baroque-like however. Of course these two were never going to abandon the vibrato completely and this was a pretty fulsome band, but there was more than enough motoric chug from the continuo and strings to keep this HIP-ster happy. And when the two of the started riffing off against each other, especially in the sensuous Largo aria-like movement, you’d have to be a particularly humourless period music fanatic not to get carried along. Particularly as the two soloists, with their contrasting sounds, Ms Mutter brighter and sweeter, Mr Vengerov, richer and darker, and the OP players, seemed to be having such a ball. A-SM, what with her mannered interpretations and sergeant major-ish exhortations to the orchestra can seem a bit serious at times, and MV can be too doggedly static. Not here as they belted through the canonic closing Allegro. Easy to see why JSB always had Vivaldi on shuffle.

Now obviously I would rather listen to Martha Argerich playing stuff that does it for me. Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti, her Chopin and Ravel, some Mozart and her way with the Prokofiev concertos (there is also a bit of Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich in her recorded chamber repertoire I think). But Schumann is pretty close to the top of her favourites and she, because she is close to the divine, gets to choose. Now it seemed to me that in the opening Allegro she had to set Marios Papadopoulos and the OPO on to the same page as her, but once done, the magic started to work. Like I say I don’t understand or care for Schumann’s music but watching and hearing MA weave a reverie in the slower, middle movement and then show her superpower technique at the end of the closing Rondo, even with the orchestra doing its level best to blast her out, was a privilege. How on earth she can play that fast, that accurately and that beautifully is a mystery. Even if you have no truck with this, or any other classical music, I am convinced, if you heard here play live, you would understand. No encore. Shame.

Mr Papadopoulos is no mean pianist himself, especially with Beethoven, but his main musical legacy will be the creation of a top notch orchestra from scratch for Oxford, the town and the University. However on the basis of this Eroica he is resolutely old-school. Now I have a fair few recordings, Harnoncourt, Rattle, Szell, Gardiner, Haitink, Furtwangler and an Abbado (BPO. I mostly listen to the Harnoncourt with the COE, the classic Szell with the Cleveland and the Haitink with the Concertgebouw. So you can see I like my Beethoven, quickish, exact, rigorous and detailed. Not stately, lush, long on vibrato and rubato and all ubermensch-y. The orchestra doesn’t have to be chamber+ sized but it has to have that intent. The best live performance I have ever heard was the Britten Sinfonia’s under Thomas Ades in 2017. (You can still get to hear their 7,8 and 9 in May this year at the Barbican for just £15. The bargain of the decade).

I see a number of proper reviewers liked this “traditional, unidiosyncratic, steady, sturdy, big-boned” interpretation. Not me I am afraid. I began to wonder if it was my own funeral in the Adagio. There is no reason why a performance clocking in at 50 minutes can’t bring a sense of Beethoven’s overall structures. Not here though. I started inventing repeats that weren’t there.

Still it takes all sorts. And, like I said, I came for the soloists and to share in the celebration which was rounded off with a cheesy Happy Birthday medley encore.

The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

Venice Baroque Orchestra and Avi Avital at Wigmore Hall review *****

Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin)

Wigmore Hall, 22nd December 2018

  • Francesco Geminiani Concerto Grosso in D minor after Corelli’s ‘La Follia’ Op. 5 No. 12
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Vivaldi – Sinfonia in G RV146
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in A minor Op. 3 No. 6 RV356
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for strings RV127
  • Vivaldi – Mandolin Concerto in C RV425
  • Giovanni Paisiello – Mandolin Concerto in E flat
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in G minor for mandolin, strings and basso continuo ‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons RV315

Saturday before Christmas. Family loafing about in front of screens or head in a book. Not the Tourist though. Two plays down and on to hear one of the finest Baroque ensembles anywhere rock out with some kick-ass Vivaldi and a couple of his lesser known contemporaries. With one of the world’s finest mandolin player (mandolinist?), Israeli Avi Avital, as soloist.

However before I got there, an errand to run. Tracking down specified cosmetics for BD and LD courtesy of Father Christmas. From Selfridges. On the Saturday before Christmas. I thought everyone did their shopping on-line now. And that retailers where watching sales plummet as the Great British public collectively sh*ts itself ahead of the March madness. Or that we had reached peak stuff.

Apparently not. I was scared. I am not much of a bricks and mortars man even on a quiet Tuesday morning. This though was positively Dantean, Especially when I got to the specified concession to discover that every woman in London under the age of 25 had come to the purchasing party. In trying to track down the appropriate shade of eye shadow I was man-handled, or should that be woman-jostled, on multiple occasions. Sensing my fear a patient sales assistant took pity on me and, in an instance, she briskly completed my elementary task. For the briefest of moments I was overtaken by an excess of Christmas spirit smiling at all those around me. Seeing fear on the faces of the throng, as they sized up the scruffy, fat, ageing weirdo grinning inanely at them, I then realised it was time to scarper. Out I waddled, weaving between the happy shoppers, scuttling along Oxford Street, round the corner, through the phalanx of black Range Rovers, (if you cannot, will not or you are proscribed from using public transport why on earth do you need to be carted around in these malevolent gas guzzlers), until finally reaching the comparative calm of Wigmore Street. Tempted to let out a cry of Freedom!!! Braveheart style but the Tourist realises that might unsettle the real tourists.

Two lessons dear reader. Financialised, neo-liberal capitalism edges ever closer to eating itself in an orgy of debt-filled consumerism and the Scrooge-like greying Tourist is now happier in the company of the genteel Wigmore Hall audience that the massed ranks of the crazed hit-polloi on a retail mission.

Though it turns out that the Wigmore Hall denizens are less genteel that you might imagine. For when Avi Avital came on the crowd when apeshit. OK maybe I exaggerate but ladies, and gentlemen, of a certain age definitely came out in a hot flush. For he is a good looking boy as you can see from the above, tousled-haired, tall, dark, handsome and when he gets going on his mandolin, channeling his inner rock god, it was as if Jimmy Page was back on stage at Madison Square Gardens circa 1973. OK minus the lighting rigs, dry ice, Catherine wheels, hummingbird jacket and Boeing jet round the back. Oh and he was sat on a chair somewhat curtailing the head-bang. Still there is no doubt he is a captivating performer who justified the delirious (by classical music audience standards) reaction.

Now the remaining (discovered) mandolin repertoire in the Western classical tradition, or at least that which the modern punters will pay to hear, is a little thin on the ground. (Though it is not a problem found in folk, especially, bluegrass, music). Which, perforce, limits the number of professional players. The lute, the precursor of the mandolin family, has a long and proud history in Renaissance and Baroque music, but the mandolin didn’t really take off as a solo instrument until the middle of the C18 when, most likely, the Neapolitan Vinaccia family came up with the eight stringed (in two courses) baby we know today. With strings of steel so the little fella could be heard, and then some, above the orchestra. The world has countless things of beauty to be grateful for from Italy. Not least most Western musical instruments.

Cue a burst of activity from Vivaldi and other Italian Baroque giants for the mandolin. But not much else. Beethoven had a fondness for the instrument, Mozart slipped it into Don Giovanni and a few other notables since have smuggled it into their opus list. There was a notable revival in Italy led by Rafaelle Calace in the mid C20 and the instrument has a fair following in Japanese classical music, I guess because of the sound similarity with the koto. I also see that Ligeti found a place for it in Le grande macabre: mind you he found a place for just about everything in that extraordinary masterpiece

All this means that adapting works originally scored for other instruments is par for the mandolin course. As here with Mr Avital’s own arrangement of Summer from The Four Seasons. (AA preceded this with a little patter about how he confused “Summer” with “Winter” when he was a nipper. OK so it wasn’t full on scathing Bill Hicks but it was worth a chuckle especially when you have shared that confusion).

Now I am guessing, that is if you care at all, that you either fall into the camp that believes, like the Tourist, that Vivaldi was a genius able to weave magic from short, simple repetitive musical ideas, or that he was a flashy journeyman who wrote the same arpeggio-laden riffs over and over again. Well Bach was with me even if Stravinsky wasn’t. To get the best out of AV though you need a specialist band that knows its stuff. The Venice Baroque Orchestra, along with the Concerto Italiano, Europa Galanta and Il Giardino Armonico is that band. Founder harpsichordist Andrea Marcon may have taken a back seat now but this ensemble still contains some of the very best Baroque specialists in Italy and a couple of jokers in lutenist Ivano Zanenghi and leader here, violinist Gianpiero Zanocco.

The difference is their ability to created complex harmonies, expansive dynamics and varied tempi from the apparently simple notes on the pages. Whilst, especially in the basso continuo, but also in the ripeno, tirelessly banging out thumping motoric rhythms. Vivaldi, and his Italian Baroque chums, may have worked to the principle that less is more when it comes to the length of their works but even so there is no let up, for player or listener, when the burn kicks in. Try it if you don’t believe me. Find a bog standard Four Seasons from 30 years ago churned out at a chugging medium pace by a modern orchestra that was probably rehearsing some interminable Bruckner that very afternoon, and compare it with the VBO’s “period everything” Sony recording with Giuliano Carmignola on the fiddle. See what I mean? The latter will blow your socks off, the former will likely see you popping the kettle on.

VIVALDI IS NOT BACKGROUND MUSIC AND SHOULD ON NO ACCOUNT BE PLAYED IN THE CAR. SLAP ON THE AFOREMENTIONED DISC. TURN IT UP VERRY LOUD. AND DANCE.

Giovanni Paisiello is primarily known for his operas including a setting of The Barber of Seville twenty odd years before Rossini seized his moment. He also banged out reams of scared music and a few keyboard concertos. His Mandolin Concerto was not signed but is generally accredited to him. AA really let fly here bouncing off his chair own a final flourish. Francesco Geminiani was one of the many Italian musicians who came to London in the first half of the C18 armed with an education from the master Corelli who served as the basis, with added string parts, for the Concerto grossi played here.

Vivaldi’s RV 425, the C major concerto written specifically for the mandolin, was probably the evening’s highlight. The strings, bar a few bars from the cello, play pizzicato throughout the final movement. Amazing. RV 93, pinched from the original lute, was another joy. RV 356, from L’estro armonico, was originally scored for violin so AA has substituted tremolos to replicate the long violin sustains. What a clever fellow. Of course this, as with the Winter, is always going to sound better on the violin but AA seems to me to make as good a case as is possible for his purloining.

Wonderful concert. Last entrant in my top 10 of the year. And as it turned out the highpoint before a somewhat fraught Christmas. Ho hum.

Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican review ****

Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018

Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.

It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.

So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.

Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.

GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.

Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.

Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.

And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.

I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.

Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.

For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.

Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.

So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.

The Swingling Sixties: the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018

  • Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
  • Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
  • Sam Furness – tenor
  • Joel Williams – tenor
  • Theodore Platt – baritone
  • Joshua Bloom – bass
  • Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
  • Stravinsky – Threni
  • Stravinsky – Tango
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia

I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.

However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.

  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
  • Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
  • Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  • Arvo Part – Fratres
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
  • Steve Reich – Drumming
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
  • William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices

I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.

Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.

When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.

Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.

Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.

Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.

But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.

All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.

It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.

I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.

Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.

And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.

So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.

What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.

The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.

IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.

No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.

Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.

Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.

English Chamber Orchestra: Vivaldi at Cadogan Hall review ****

English Chamber Orchestra, Choir of the C21

Cadogan Hall, 2nd December 2018

Raphaela Papadakis (soprano), Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Stephanie Gonley (violin), Caroline Dale (cello), Harry Winstanley (flute), Michael Collins (conductor)

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Gloria in D RV 589
  • Concerto for Violin in F minor, ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons, Op 8 No 4, RV 297
  • Concerto for Violin in E flat major (La tempesta di mare), Op 8 No 5, RV 253
  • Concerto for Violin and Cello in B flat major, RV 547
  • Concerto for Flute in D (Il gardellino), Op 10 No 3, RV 428

Vivaldi now is generally the preserve of the specialist Baroque ensembles. With audiences to match. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to hear a performance of the Four Seasons in London and aren’t too sniffy about who performs it you won’t have long to wait. Gloria may not be up their with the Faure or Mozart Requiems or Allegri’s Miserere in the popularity stakes but it still gets a fair few outings. Beyond that though if you, like me, crave repeated fixes of Vivaldi then you normally need to wait for the experts to visit. I can see why Vivaldi’s vast and exquisite output has been hijacked by a just a handful of his pieces. And I can also see why, a la Stravinsky, there are so many classical music buffs who airily dismiss Vivaldi as a lightweight, one-trick pony, before they return to their Wagner or some such other turgid dross.

Well let me tell you they are wrong. I can’t pretend an encyclopaedic knowledge of the RV’s and anyway life, literally, would be too short to “know” all of AV’s music, (even now that so much has been recorded by specialists). The cantatas, much of the sacred music outside the familiar and of course the operas, (with their risibly stereotypical plots) are unknown to me. None of this matters though since Vivaldi’s music is so immediate, so deceptively, but rarely actually, simple that even on the first listen it can be enjoyed. Which means all you need to do, (look away now buffs), is grab some cheap, web regarded collections and switch on your shuffle. Result. Life enhanced. Simple really.

So this all Vivaldi bill by the ECO, under conductor Michael Collins, caught my eye. A Gloria, a Winter, a couple of the best concerti, for respectively violin and flute, outside of you-know-what and then a comparative rarity, one of the handful of double concerti scored for violin and cello. From a chamber ensemble with a fine pedigree; remember their first Patron was Benjamin Britten and some of Britten’s finest recordings of his own music were made in partnership with them. They are not though, and this is in no way intended to be disparaging, experts in the Baroque. In fact they are one of the most versatile of orchestras anywhere on the planet. Look at their immense list of recordings. They will even do weddings. Though it helps if your names are Harry Windsor and Megan Markle.

The Choir of the C21 led by Max Barley is a similarly broad, though still top drawer, church. Our soloists for the Gloria were well matched soprano Raphaela Papadakis and mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean with ECO principals Stephanie Gonley and Caroline Dale taking the instrumental leads along with young flautist Harry Winstanley. Now I can’t pretend that these performances were up there with the best of the Vivaldi interpreters I have heard, La Serenissima under Adrian Chandler, the Concerto Italiano, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Brecon Baroque and Gli Incognito, but they were still very enjoyable. Especially in the Gloria.

I was particularly taken by the double concerto where Stephanie Gonley and Catherine Dale’s familiarity paid dividends, This is one of only four concertos for this coupling of which one is incomplete. The Allegro comprises arpeggio figures which begin in the ripieno before being taken up by the soloists, offset with more lyrical passages. The slow movement is a conversation between the soloists a la Bach and the final pacey allegro offers more virtuoso opportunity against a triple rhythm accompaniment.

The flute concerto, No 3 of the six which make up Op 10 was likely published in 1728. A cardellino or gardellino is a goldfinch, a popular caged bird in Vivaldi’s Venice, (and in Golden Age Holland, as you will no doubt know from Carel Fabritius’s exquisite painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and which inspired Donna Tart’s ambitious novel). The goldfinch often crops up in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child, the little fella symbolising the foreknowledge that mum had about her son’s eventual gory death. No such iconography here though, for Vivaldi the relevance was the wee bird’s song. The tweeting is most obvious in the last movement which allows the flautist to develop ever more extravagant virtuosic tweeting. The first movement isn’t quite so ornithological with the flute offering trills, runs and staccato repeats more in counterpoint to the bouncy riternello dance. The fast movements sandwich a lilting cantabile into which tousle-haired Harry injected a surprising quote of lyricism.

Vivaldi was quite keen on stormy seas. RV 433 is a La tempesta di mare for flute and RV 570 a Concerto grosso with the same sub-title. RV 253 is the violin concerto equivalent, part of the Op 8 twelve titled the Contest Between Harmony and Invention of which the first four are the Seasons. No surprise I guess for a Venetian with a view from the Ospedale della Pieta out over the lagoon to the Lido and beyond to the Adriatic. Now I happen to think that there is as much in the other 8 concertos as there is in the Four Seasons, certainly in terms of tunes, if not in pure rock ‘n’ roll theatricality. An original score for 253 survives in Dresden, probably brought by JG Pisendel the violinist when he returned from studying with Vivaldi. Pisendel was the man who introduced Vivaldi’s music to JS Bach. Diamond geezer.

253’s fast movements are marked Presto not just Allegro so they need to be quick. The central Largo is the three minutes or so of relative calm though even at the end the storm is plainly on its way back. Both storms call for seemingly never-ending (well a few minutes) of descending figurations, the last set against a sort of dotted fanfare rhythm, the first even more frantic arpeggios against a scrubbing ritornello. I enjoyed Stephanie Gonley’s rendition but you probably also need to hear this played at more extreme tempi from one of the big-boned Italian outfits with, say, Federico Guglielmo or Giuliano Carmignola in the hot seat. Same is true of 297 Winter (which has that bit of summer in it just like Summer often feels a bit wintry).

Before the Gloria we were treated to a burst of medieval carol arrangements to beef up the festive quotient. At least those of us not underneath the gallery, where the choir was located, were treated. Still a nice touch. (Now as it happens I have a jolly collection of medieval carols, songs and chants from Pro Cantione Antiqua and the English Medieval Wind ensemble on CD I can recommend). It was as much as MSC and I could do to stop MS popping upstairs and joining in for he is the expert on all things Black Death to the end of the War of the Roses.

I am not actually sure if MS and MSC had heard a recording of the Gloria before but this was certainly their first Vivaldi gig. It is simply not possible for anyone raised in the culture of Western musical tonality not to like Vivaldi’s Gloria. Unless they are dead. And even then it will be on most of the playlists in heaven I would guess. Were that, Pascal’s Wager style, to actually exist. Anyway MS and MSC seemed to like it unless there were being their usual polite selves when it comes to their overly solicitous Dad/Future-Father-In-Law.

The Gloria was composed around 1715 for the residents of the Ospedale. They probably drafted in a few blokes for the tenor and bass lines. The young women of the Ospedale were prodigiously talented, after all Vivaldi composed music for them that even today taxes the very best of musicians (especially for violin), but they probably couldn’t quite get to the gruffer end of the vocal scale. After Vivaldi died in 1741, impoverished after the failed attempt to set up shop in Vienna, the score of Gloria was lost and forgotten until being rediscovered in Turin in the late 1920s. It is a setting of the eponymous section of the Latin Mass divided into twelve sections, all mercifully short and it is resolutely upbeat even as it contrasts keys, moods, tempi, instrumentation and voices.

It is perfect.